By Neil Patrick Healy
As Saturday night turned into early Sunday morning, four of Nevada boxers lay awake in their beds. Jarred Santos, JJ Mariano, Johnny Aguilar and Garrett Felling knew they were one victory away from being crowned national champions. Sporadic thoughts of how the next day’s events would unfurl had them wide-eyed with anticipation, because what lay before them was the culmination of a dream.
The events that transpired in the ring this past Sunday in Miami, Florida were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Four Nevada fighters stepped into the ring Sunday afternoon, and four walked out as national champions. This helped Nevada claim the men’s national team title, the programs fifth and the first since 1993. From individual winners to the team title, this proud program has had one of its greatest seasons ever.
“This team is the best,” said Nevada head coach Pat Jefferson. “Jarred, JJ, Johnny and Garrett are the four best fighters we’ve had here. You put them against any of the guys from the past and I guarantee that my guys would win.”
The 156-pound Aguilar came into nationals with one last chance to live up to the potential his coaches knew he had in him. His climb wasn’t an easy one. After two tough fights preceding Sunday’s title fight, Aguilar mustered his last bit of strength for the last fight of his career and tactically dominated his opponent. Using his destructive body shots and establishing his jab punches early lead to Aguilar controlling the fight from start to finish. Now he gets to bask in finishing his senior year as a national champion.
“Getting the title in itself is an absolute honor,” Aguilar said. “To win it all my senior year is just absolutely amazing. It’s the absolute best thing that could have happened to me.”
Another senior going out a champion is the man who is looked at as the captain and leader of this team. The 132-pound Santos has had a four-year climb to the top, and he’s reveling in accomplishing a goal he has had since his sophomore year of high school.
“I feel amazing,” Santos said. “This is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.”
Santos also won the Most Outstanding Boxer Award for his efforts in the ring. Coach Jefferson made the point that he didn’t have much competition except for his teammates.
“The only competition he had were his brothers on the team,” Jefferson said. “He totally dominated the tournament. He boxed beautifully, his confidence was never touched and he was in excellent condition coming in. Put all of those together and you don’t beat Jarred Santos.”
After a sensational career, Santos plans on continuing his leadership role for the program as an assistant coach next season. His boxing career has come full circle.
The 139-pound JJ Mariano came into nationals wanting to atone for his past failures in the ring. The sights and sounds of last year’s championship loss still rung clearly in his mind, and those images carried him all the way to the championship fight this year. This time, Mariano would not let this opportunity slip through his fingers. He used his counter punches well and combined them with his thunderous left hand to win almost every exchange of the fight. The feeling of repentance overcame Mariano, as the figurative monkey has been lifted off his back.
“It feels like I’ve made up for all my past mistakes in the ring,” Mariano said. “A huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”
For the 185-pound Felling, this is his second consecutive national championship as he improves his career record to 14-0. The championship fight pitted Felling against Chrye Anderson of UNLV. The two faced each other in regionals the month before in a fight that ended in a dramatic scene where Anderson was disqualified for arguing and turning his back on the ref. In the rematch, Felling used a newfound patience for the championship fight.
“I stayed back and boxed patiently the first round,” Felling said. “I hit him with a few good body shots and by the second round he was a little winded. After that, I was able to put some pressure on him and counter everything he threw.”
Felling has a high ceiling going into his junior season. He is continuing to improve his style and working with the coaches, so this title is another one for his trophy case.
Logistically, the team title was an upset win. Nevada has eight fighters on the team and sent five fighters to nationals. The United States Military Academy at West Point came into nationals with a fighter entered in all eleven weight classes, which made them the natural goliath-type favorite to win the team title. Nevada went toe-to-toe with the Military Academy in three of its four championship fights Sunday, and won all three. Nevada’s four national champions were enough to propel them to the men’s national team title. This win is just as sweet for these fighters as winning their own individual titles. In their minds, they win and lose together.
“This feels absolutely amazing,” Santos said. “The team title means honor for our program, and this program is family to me.”
All of the fighters understand what winning the team title means for their program.
“The team title is the highest goal and the ultimate accomplishment of the national championships,” Felling said. “For us to win having sent only five guys is beyond belief and I could not be more proud to be a part of this group of guys.”
The Nevada boxing team is enjoying the fruits of its labor. Their storybook season sets a new mark of excellence for a program with a winning tradition.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.